Last night marked a historic event for the Nord University English Department and Bodø filmklubb. We teamed up for a screening of two Frankenfilms at Bodø’s stunning Stormen Library, and we had a record-breaking gallery audience of 50, composed of film fans, scholars, and university and high school students. We were delighted to be able to share this moment with so many friends – half of the fun of watching horror films is watching them with a crowd.
Dr. Jamie Callison opened the evening with some illuminating notes on the first film, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), the all-time horror classic featuring Boris Karloff as a surprisingly humane monster trapped in a body and world he can’t understand. In Dr. Callison’s view, the on-screen horror speaks to events both before and after the film’s debut, making the film both historically valuable and chronologically prescient.
After a short break, Bodø filmklubb’s leader, Michael Baumann, had a little surprise in store for us. He introduced a second film, Frankenweenie (1984), which is a live-action short that predates the later stop-motion animated version by 28 years, but tells the same tale of a boy, Victor Frankenstein, who uses galvanistic forces to reanimate his beloved dog, Sparky. In this film, all of writer and director Tim Burton’s trademarks are present: the Gothic landscapes, the dry humor, the loving critique of suburban life. What struck us as we watched it as a double feature with Frankenstein (1931), however, was how Burton plays with the iconography of Whale’s masterpiece to both update it and to celebrate its place in the Hollywood canon. This was such a discovery for most of us present, and well worth the time.
We hope that Frankenreads will be the first of many collaborations between Bodø Filmklubb and the English Department, and I think our students would readily agree with that. Here are a couple pictures from the evening. The event was also featured in Bodø Nu newspaper, but it is behind a paywall. As soon as we are able, we will update this post with a full version.
This week marks the opening of our two exciting new Frankenstein exhibitions. Ice and Fire: Frankenstein and the Arctic, curated by Jamie Callison and Andrew McKendry with the support of the Nord University Library, focuses attention on Robert Walton’s doomed expedition to the Far North, with emphasis on details from whaling, Arctic exploration, and northern atmospheric phenomena, that would be of particular interest to scholars and fans of Frankenstein, expedition narrative, or of Romantic literature in general.
Our other exhibition, Frankenversions: 200 Years of Adapting Frankenstein, on display at the Nord University library through October 31, features representations of Frankenstein in everything from Beat poetry to breakfast cereal, and is not to be missed if you are on the Nord Bodø campus. Jamie Callison and I had a lot of fun planning and organizing this exhibition, and we were delighted to receive so much help and support from our faculty. Dr. Ana Borissova at natural sciences loaned us the Van der Graaff generator so that our visitors can see and hear live electricity and marvel over the forces of nature that inspired Mary Shelley in the first place. I was interviewed on NRK Nordland Radio today, and I have to admit that while, perhaps appropriately, terrifying (it’s the most Norwegian I’ve ever spoken in my life!), it was great to present the exhibition and to showcase a few of the many versions of Frankenstein we assembled. Here are a few pictures of some of the exhibits (all photos credited: Per Jarl Elle, Nord University):
Check out the hardcover Lovecraft! They’ve also got a graphic novel adaptation of Frankenstein, and the 2018 Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, which uses Shelley’s Frankenstein and the conventions of so-called “genre fiction” for inspiration, but deals with an entirely different kind of horror. Sounds like a must-read for those of us thinking about how far Frankenstein‘s cultural reach extends.
With Frankenweek approaching we can admit another addition to the slowly but steadily growing list of ‘Frankenwords’. Many Frankenwords bear on features of the evolving technological matrix we have created and in which we now increasingly live. In the supermarkets there are now, for example, transgenic Frankenfoods, like Frankenfries, that are made from blight-resistant potatoes. For some, the availability of such foods engender Frankenfears—concerns, irrational or not, that we might have about consuming them. At the cutting edge biochemists like Craig Venter are attempting to engineer working artificial Frankencells using a minimal number of genes. And speaking of genes, we might mention the Frankengene, certain variants of which have been connected to increased fear-related behavior, such as the intense horror experienced by some of us when we watch horror films…
Frankenwords are a type of portmanteau, a new word created by recombining parts of existing words. Just like Frankenstein’s creature, these parts cannot be combined in a random fashion. In the case of the Frankenwords we’ve just been talking about, Franken– is a prefix that can only attach to bases of a particular sound shape. The base has to be either a word of one syllable, as in Frankenpet (genetically engineered to resist parasitic infection), or Frankenmom (see the definition on Urban Dictionary), or a sequence of two syllables with the stress on the first, like Fránkenfòrest (think pest-resistant trees with genetically enhanced carbon-absorption capacity), Fránkenwèenie (Tim Burton’s reanimated bull terrier in the movie of the same name). Franken– does not combine with words of two or more syllables with the stress on the second, so a *Fránkenpotàto is not a possible Frankenword, but a Frankenspud or a Fránkentàter is. Native speakers of English know this rule without ever having been explicitly taught it. It’s latent in the knowledge of language, or grammar, that English speakers acquire as children.
Another example of a repurposed and recycled word-part, one that attaches following the base this time, is the ubiquitous –gate. In becoming the prototype of the modern political scandal, Watergate has over the last half-century spawned legion terms for controversies in politics and popular culture too numerous to mention, all with this suffix. One example is Rinkagate, again topical with the BBC series A Very English Scandal, which dramatises the events that ended the political career of Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the British Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976. Thorpe was implicated in a botched murder attempt whose only casualty was the Great Dane Rinka, who was in the intended victim’s charge at the moment of the attempt.
A vast number of portmanteau words are actually blends, like smog, a blend of smoke and fog. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, and originator of the term portmanteau, was himself an outstanding creator of blends. Many of them can be found in his poem The Jabberwocky, whose nouns, adjectives and verbs are entirely inventions of Carroll’s, including words like frumious, from fume and furious, or slithy, from lithe and slimy. In its role as articulators of new phenomena and experiences, media and journalism are also a living source of blends. Belligerati, blogorrhea, chugger, croissandwich, nontroversy, slacktivism, tweople, and wikillectual are just some of the blends that capture the spirit of the particular times in which we live.
Original illustration of the The Jabberwocky, by Sir John Tenniel
What is less well recognized is that many of our most everyday words can be looked at usefully as recombining parts of some kind. Many words of one syllable in English recombine certain sound sequences that on close inspection turn out to have a relatively stable (if abstract) meanings associated with them. Many words beginning with the cluster gl-, for example, have something to do with vision, e.g. glare, glance, glimmer, gleam, glow, glower, gloom, and so on. These words form a family based on similarity of both sound structure and meaning. There are several other families of word like this. For example, cl– is found in words designating sounds with abrupt onsets, such as clank, click, clip clop; bl– in words for loud sounds induced by airflow, like blat, blast, and blab. The cluster st– is found as the onset of many monosyllabic words referring to one-dimensional objects, like stick, stack, stilt, and stock, while fl– is associated with two-dimensional surfaces, such as floor, flap, and flake. We can identify similar families based on the part of the syllable that carries the rhyme as well. Words ending in –oop all have to do with curves or tracing a curved path of some kind: loop, hoop, droop, swoop, stoop, and scoop.
None of these properties are unique to English, of course. As Noam Chomsky was one of the first to point out, the capacity entailed in all human language can be thought of as a combinatorial engine. Portmanteau words are a powerful demonstration of how this combinatorial system allows us to generate large numbers of new words for new concepts, phenomena and experiences by recombining parts of existing words—words which themselves are combinations of a very limited number of speech sounds. (In standard varieties of English there are 24 consonant sounds; General British, a.k.a. ‘RP’, has 19 vowel sounds, General American 15.) Linguists are apt to point to the uniqueness of this human combinatorial ability, but combinatorial language may be a result of relatively recent evolution of our species. The earliest remains of Homo sapiens are now dated to Morocco about 300 thousand years ago. Around seventy thousand years ago, however, something momentous occurred in human evolution. Homo sapiens expanded out of its geographical cradle, colonizing new niches throughout Africa, the rest of the Old World and, in time, the New. What event could possibly have driven this rapid expansion? An increasingly common view amongst paleoanthropologists is that it was the innovation of fully combinatorial language, a Promethean event that radically altered the conditions for the coordination of human activities within larger groups and polities and the cumulative development of culture and technology. If fully combinatorial language is indeed as recent as this, it may explain why, within the space of a few ten thousand years, we see the sudden appearance of the extraordinarily sophisticated cave art of Lascaux, Altamira, and Gabarnmung, the first tangible evidence of human storytelling, as well as the extinction of other human species, most notably the Neanderthals. Thus, while part of our biological endowment as behaviorally modern human beings, combinatorial language might also be thought of as the earliest human enhancement, one that paved the way for more recent revolutions in communication technology that include the invention of writing, and the storage of information on external devices from the clay tablets and parchment of antiquity to the hard-disks and internet servers of today, all the way up to the computer languages at the core of the Artifical Intelligence that is now promising, or threatening, depending on your perspective, to alter the human condition for good.
Rock carving of kangaroo at Gabarnmung cave
Frankenstein and his creature are perhaps the most cogent symbol of the human urge to transcend the limits of the present and the capacity our technology has to loose itself of our own control of it. But if Frankenstein is the Modern Prometheus, as Mary Shelley styled her novel, then fully combinatorial language is surely the Original.
Beliaeva, Natalia. 2014. A study of English blends: From structure to meaning and back again. Word Structure 7 (1): 29-54.
Like many such expeditions, Robert Walton’s quest for the North Pole becomes most interesting when it gets derailed; fortunately for us, Walton is waylaid by the exhausted Victor Frankenstein, whose tale of horror and woe—an interruption to the anticipated account of arctic exploration—proves one of the most haunting and enduring narratives of English literature. Stopping to rescue half-crazed necromancers was, of course, never part of the original itinerary; this fateful encounter emerges from the arctic landscape itself, when the ship becomes trapped in the surrounding floe.
Last Monday (July 31st), we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the sea room in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were compassed round by a very thick fog. We accordingly lay to, hoping that some change would take place in the atmosphere and weather. About two o’clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention, and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile: a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge, and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes, until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice. (Shelley 1818, I.21-22)
The beginning of Walton’s story thus turns out to be the foundation for another beginning. And if we accept Shelley’s proposition (from her introduction to the 1831 edition) that every beginning “must be linked to something that went before” (9), then we must seek the beginning before even this beginning—the “something that went before” Walton’s voyage. This search is an element of the Frankenreads online exhibition that we have been developing here at Nord University, and I myself have been productively waylaid by an earlier account of artic exploration: the Honourable Constantine John Phipps’ A Voyage Towards the North Pole Undertaken By His Majesty’s Command. In the opening pages of Frankenstein, Walton ascribes his obsession with the north to the accounts of arctic travel in his uncle’s library, and Phipps’ Voyage, first published in 1774, would have been one of the most current such narratives when (by his own dating) he was a book-devouring boy. The Voyage opens, in fact, with a survey of earlier artic voyages—the very thing that fed Walton’s youthful reveries (Shelley 1818, I.5).
At first glance, Phipps’ account hardly seems like the kind of material that could inspire a poetically-inclined adventurer like Walton, let alone Shelley; the disciplined Phipps focuses his attention predominantly on climatic measurements and geographic coordinates. The attendant illustrations of the arctic orography (such as the one above) do present the forms and scale that would engender the sublimity of later depictions, but the perspective and presentation—abstracted from the landscape and reproduced from various positions—are less conducive to the awe and terror associated with the sublime. Yet at the heart of the journal we find a scene that looks strangely familiar:
Compassed round with ice, the two ships—HMS Carcass and HMS Racehorse—were nearly crushed when the floe tightened. The image of the ships immured in the ice became somewhat iconic in the ensuing decades, appearing (sometimes with variations) throughout a number of publications, such as John Payne’s 1791 Universal Geography. Though only a lexicographic accident (the word “carcass” also meaning an incendiary shell), it is hard not to hear echoes of Frankenstein in lines like “the Carcass moved, and made fast to the same field with us” (Phipps 60). Stranded for more than ten days, the Carcass was ultimately recovered in one piece; this was the end of the journey for Phipps, but was it perhaps a beginning for Shelley?
This is a mystery we will have to pursue later. Keep an eye out for our exhibition, which will be going live next month!
Welcome to our blog! The English Department at Nord University, Bodø, Norway, invites you to help us celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. We’ll be posting project updates here, as well as our general thoughts, discoveries, and ramblings about this incredible novel.